Hemingway's Masculinity

by , 2004

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway portrays an ideal of masculinity through the absence of an ideal man. He uses Jake, Mike, Robert, and Romero all as examples of men who are less than perfect, especially in their relationships with Lady Brett Ashley. By displaying their flaws in the men's interactions with Brett, Hemingway constructs an ideal of masculinity without explicitly describing it.

Jake Barnes, our castrated narrator, is the most obvious example of what the ideal man is not. At the end of the novel we learn how much control Brett holds over him when Jake responds to her telegram with, "Well, that meant San Sebastian all shot to hell. I suppose, vaguely, I had expected something of the sort" (243). Not only does he abandon his relaxing vacation because of Brett's unidentified trouble; he expects to have to do so. Also, Jake's castration coincides with his feelings towards Brett. While lying in bed and thinking about the injury, his mind wanders to Brett. "I started to think about Brett… and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of the sudden I started to cry" (39). Thoughts of his castration lead to thoughts of Brett, which in turn, lead to emotional disappointment at his inability to fulfill the sexual role of the typical man.

Brett's fiancé, Mike Campbell, is shown to be too submissive to Brett in his refusal to condemn her adultery. Throughout the novel, Mike knows about sexual encounters that Brett has with other men but chooses not to do anything about them. All he does is drink and try to forget that the problem exists. At one point, when angered with Robert, he asks, "What if Brett did sleep with you? She's slept with lots of better people than you" (146). Mike acknowledges that he knows his fiancé sleeps with other men and, furthermore, he does not seem to care. He says later, sitting at the same table, "Mark you. Brett's had affairs with men before. She tells me everything" (147). It sounds at first as if Mike accepts Brett's misbehavior, but a closer examination reveals that he instead just tolerates it because he is not capable of making her quit. The entire time we see Mike in the story, he is completely drunk. His drinking seems to be a way for him to escape the problems that he has with Brett. Rather than taking the dominant role in the relationship and making things go the way he wants them to, Mike passively accepts Brett's misbehavior and drinks to forget about it. We are led to believe by Hemmingway that the ideal man would not let his woman go around with random men, but would instead dominantly reserve her for himself.

Throughout the story, Hemingway makes it clear that the ideal man is nothing like Robert Cohn. We immediately are told of his "inferiority and shyness" that he feels because of the way he was "treated as a Jew at Princeton" (11). Robert Cohn is set up as an outsider and, therefore, his actions represent those that are contrary to ideal male actions. He, at the beginning of the novel, is dating Frances, a woman whose "attitude toward [him] changed from one of careless possession and exploitation to the absolute determination that he should marry her" (13). Robert allows himself to be possessed and exploited by a woman who, we discover, has very little real affection for him. Later in the novel, he becomes more despicable through his incessant chasing of Brett. They go on a casual weekend getaway, but he refuses to let it end at that. Instead, he follows the entire group, including Brett, to Pamplona and brags of his brief relations with her. Sitting in a café, Mike says to him, "Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer? Don't you know you're not wanted?" (146). Hemmingway, through Mike, attacks the way that Robert follows Brett around and does not let a relationship go when it is over. The way in which Robert Cohn lets women become too dominant in his life is not a trait of the ideal man.

Romero, the bullfighter, is a final character that becomes involved with Brett and, in doing so, displays less than ideal manly characteristics. Like the others, he lets Brett become dominant and tries to make their relationship too serious. At first, he is very ashamed of Brett's short hair and wants hr to grow it out, but she refuses and he accepts her refusal. Brett says to Jake, "He wasn't ashamed of me long" (246). Romero is willing to be laughed at by his friends because Brett will not grow her hair out in a womanly way. Then, Brett tells Jake, "He wanted to marry me" (246). Even though he cannot get her to change her hair for him, Romero wants to marry Brett. He accepts Brett's dominant role and tries to move a casual relationship to marriage much too quickly. These, again, are not characteristics of the ideal man.

If we were to construct a man who had none of the flaws that Jake, Mike, Robert, and Romero had, he would be a model of Hemingway's ideal of masculinity. He would be dominant in relationships, would be able to fulfill his sexual duties, and would keep relationships from becoming too serious. Instead of giving us a simple example of the ideal man, Hemingway portrays him through the flaws of others.